Film Score: Craig Armstrong Cinematography: Pawel Edelman
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Bokeem Woodbine and Harry Lennix
Collateral by Michael Mann, but was also nominated--and won--an Oscar for best actor as the lead in the Ray Charles biopic Ray. Taylor Hackford was probably the best directorial choice to make the film, as he had done some impressive work with musical films like The Idolmaker and the documentary Chuck Berry, Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. Even so, it apparently took the director the better part of a decade or more to get the financing to make the movie, and that turned out to be a stroke of luck considering the wait enabled him to cast Foxx in the lead and make the film a truly great work of art. It also has an interesting structure, as do similar films like Clint Eastwood’s Bird, in which the past is woven into the current timeline in order to keep it from being a straight chronological march through Charles’ life. How much of that is due to Hackford’s work on the story, or screenwriter James L. White is unknown, but it works extremely well in the way it keeps the great performer’s past in the mind of the viewer in the same way it was in his own mind as he went through the many challenges in his life and career. The most frequent image, one that isn’t explained until later, is that of water--on the floor and in suitcases--that sends him into a panic.
The film begins with a beautiful montage, Jamie Foxx’s hands as they play the opening to “What’d I Say” on the electric piano. Other instruments join in, and then the piano keys become a reflection on Ray Charles’ sunglasses. The film proper begins in 1948 in Florida, where he was born Ray Charles Robinson, with Foxx catching a bus north to Seattle. He beautifully pretends to be a World War Two veteran to ease some of the racism that comes his way. During the trip he remembers playing a recording session for a country band back home, as well as being told he needed to wear sunglasses. The first person he meets in Seattle is none other than Quincy Jones, played by Larenz Tate. He begins his professional life with guitarist Terrence Howard doing impersonations of Charles Brown and Nat “King” Cole, and trapped into service contract by the unscrupulous Denise Dowse, who also makes him live with her and service her sexually. When he get an offer from Swingtime Records he takes it, and goes out on the road with Lowell Fulson, played by Chris Thomas King, which is where he meets Bokeem Woodbine as sax man David “Fathead” Newman, and future personal assistant Clifton Powell. The money’s better, but he still feels just as isolated, and it’s also where he gets hooked on heroin. It’s not until Foxx gets a visit from Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records, in the form of Curtis Armstrong, and Jerry Wexler played by Richard Schiff, that his career finally takes off.
Sharon Warren does a nice job as Charles’ feisty mother, and C.J. Sanders is adequate as the young Ray who unexpectedly goes blind. Later on, Foxx falls in love with Kerry Washington and the two of them eventually marry. But the singer can’t help falling into relationships with his backup singers, first Aunjanue Ellis and later Regina King. While his relationship with Atlantic made him a star, and solidified his sound, Charles was always looking out for himself and eventually replaced Powell with Harry Lennix and moved to ABC Records where he became a superstar. The acting by the entire cast is uniformly excellent, which makes Jamie Foxx’s performance that much more impressive. Taylor Hackford was also fortunate to get the participation of Ray Charles on the entire project shortly before his death. Jamie Foxx actually met with Charles and worked on some of the music with him, but only once. Hackford was at first mystified why he didn’t want to spend more time with him, but Foxx told him that he couldn’t risk sounding like the old Ray when he had to portray him while he was young. And yet another stroke of luck came about when the director learned that Foxx actually plays piano, and had gone to college on a music scholarship.
The film is most impressive in a number of ways. The historical replication by the set designers was magnificent, not only in terms of the number of locations they had to duplicate, but also the shifting time periods as the singer moved through his career. Hackford also handled the flashbacks extremely well, giving them a sort of stylistic quality but also imbuing them with a lot of realism. The color manipulation was also well done in both parts of the film. The film was nominated for six Oscars, including costume design, editing, Hackford’s work as a director, and best picture. The two wins were for Foxx and for sound mixing. The last award was also well earned, as the integration of Ray Charles’ actual music and vocals was seamless. There were also some nice practical effects shots with the water that always come at surprising times. If there’s a down side to the film it’s that it spends too much time sensationalizing his drug abuse and marital infidelity and less on the music itself, though fortunately there is enough of the later to balance things out. Other notable appearances in the film are by Rick Gomez as Tom Dowd, Garry Grubbs as a fiddle player, and Mike Pniewski as a bus driver. Ultimately Ray is a terrific film that celebrates one of America’s true musical geniuses and well worth a place in everyone’s movie collection.